SAN JOSE -- When then-president Oscar Arias announced in 2007 that he wanted Costa Rica to be the first in the developing world to go carbon-neutral in 14 years, that goal seemed like a stretch for a small, financially-troubled nation.
Costa Rica was already on the leading edge of "being green," having established a thriving market for ecotourism with its 3.2 million acres of protected park spaces and reserves. The country also had a leg up in environmentally conscious energy, as it has long derived more than 90 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. And one of its own--Christiana Figueres--would soon be named as head of the United Nations Climate Change initiative.
But Costa Rica was adding an estimated 200 cars to its roads every day and didn't have the infrastructure in place to keep trash and wastewater out of its rivers and streams.
"When Arias made the commitment to go carbon-neutral, he had no idea what it meant," said Carolina Rodriguez, whose nonprofit Costa Rica Neutral helps companies lower carbon emissions. "It's a lot more than planting a few trees and switching some light bulbs. It involves changing the very way we operate as a society, and, so far, Costa Rica hasn't proved it can be flexible."
A study by the INCAE business school put the cost of going neutral at $7.8 billion, an amount the cash strapped country of 4.5 million people, with a ballooning $1.2 billion deficit, can ill afford. Costa Rica is further handicapped by the fact that most emissions, some 80 percent, are generated by the powerful transportation and agricultural sectors.
Given the challenges, critics of Arias were right in that the pledge was less about emissions and more about public relations. His pronouncement came at a time when Costa Rica was losing ground in a variety of sectors to larger, more production-oriented countries. Between 1999 and 2009, the number of textile manufactures fell by 46 percent. Many fruit companies shifted their operations to other countries with lower costs. Coffee production sank by 45 percent over the same 10-year period.
"Going carbon-neutral is a way for Costa Rica to differentiate itself," said Roberto Jimenez, one of the early pioneers of carbon neutrality in Costa Rica and founder of CO2.cr. "The country can't compete with the big boys [Argentina, Brazil and Mexico] on cost, so it needs to show it offers something else to the market."
Over the past three years, a number of private...